Deborah J. Haynes


Occasional Writing

Loss, Suffering, and Death

Death has always fascinated me. From an early age I was curious about the process of dying and about what happens afterward. Life in my family, through adolescence and early adulthood, was a time of tremendous suffering. Perhaps this stemmed from the fact that Mom could not breastfeed me, though she tried. I must have been a difficult baby. Three sisters were born in subsequent years, and in retrospect, it seems that I was left more and more alone. My teens were a decade of keen suffering: Mom’s suicide attempt, parents’ divorce, Mom’s aneurysm and near death, pregnancy and relinquishment, marriage and divorce – all before the age of 20.

Two episodes from my childhood and adolescence strongly shaped my sensibilities. In grade school in Seattle we had many drills during which we had to process to the basement of the building and hide under tables. Then, in high school, I participated in debate class, and learned about the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear war.

One of my most significant early mentors was artist and writer Mary Caroline Richards. She introduced me to anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner’s ideas, and in my early 20s I read Knowledge of Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. Steiner had written that experiencing and contemplating death is what leads one into a spiritual life. I found a dead goldfinch and made a detailed drawing of it in my journal. I turned with determination toward inner life. The following decade was a painful decade in many ways, but I was also active in the world.

It wasn’t until years later that I experienced other cycles of loss and grief. In the 1990s I helped care for a colleague’s wife as she died of cancer. Then, in the early 2000s, my closest friend in Jamestown died. Two years later I experienced 6 deaths within 8 months, including my mother and dearest friend and a powerful colleague at the university. Then, less than a decade later, a flood effectively destroyed the life, and the place, that David and I had created in Jamestown, Colorado. His confusion and descent into dementia was coupled with a massive amount of work that ensued in Jamestown over two years. This one sentence holds a lot – I traveled back and forth to Jamestown 3 to 5 days each week, overseeing work that was being done there and doing many tasks myself.

At first we lived in a friend’s house in Longmont while I looked all over Boulder County for a suitable place to live with David. I was looking for a place – house, condo, apartment – where there would be easy access to goods and services, and which would be easy for a care team to navigate as well. Once we bought the bungalow in Longmont in 2014, there was much work to be done here too, to insulate and upgrade the house and make it more livable for cold winters and hot summers. I helped Rick, a skilled carpenter, remodel the funky 1952 garage into a studio and moved into that in 2015. In 2017 we sold Ivydell and settled into a gentle and consistent rhythm in Longmont.

But my own suffering and losses are only a small part of this tale. In 2007, following several months in a grief group offered by a local hospice, I decided to undertake the forty-hour training to become a hospice volunteer. And this led to three years of consistent weekly visits with individuals who were dying. I learned so much through these few years, both in terms of the practicalities of care – how to move someone who cannot move alone, how to get a person and wheelchair in and out of car, how to provide support for walking, and more – and about the vagaries of the dying process. I was part of a support group for several years for caregivers, took a six-week “Savvy Caregiver” course with a gerontologist, and I learned how to set up and manage a care team.

I took another forty-hour training on understanding death and the dying process from both Buddhist and Western perspectives. This course focused less on the practical details of care, and more on a variety of other topics ranging from meditation practice to the legal and pragmatic issues that accompany death. I had already begun reading about the Buddhist understanding of the death process and 6 stages that describe the process of death and rebirth.

Perhaps the most vivid experience in this class was when we visited a Denver cadaver lab for an afternoon of looking at dead bodies. This was not a morbid experience for me; instead, I found it fascinating. We could not touch anything, but I asked our host if we could see inside the skull. Not everyone wanted to watch as he lifted the top of the skull off of the base.

And then there was my own individual reading of memoirs, books, and articles written from diverse cultural and medical perspectives. Recently I read B. J. Miller’s and Shoshana Berger’s 2019 A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death, and especially appreciated the first chapter, titled “Don’t Leave a Mess!” This has prompted ongoing work to simplify my life.

Now in my 70s, I do not fear death and am greatly inspired by the Dalai Lama, who contemplates his own demise 7 times each day. When I am honest with myself, I admit that I do fear a protracted dying process, especially one during which others are trying to keep me alive. To address this, I have written specific advance directives.

I have read and studied and learned so much. My meditation practice includes daily contemplation about this precious human life and the fact that all phenomena, including life itself, are impermanent. In this fragile context, I believe that all actions have consequences and therefore everything we do matters. Knowing that loss and suffering and death are inevitable, I try to cultivate lovingkindness and compassion toward all sentient beings. That is a tall order, especially when life on earth feels precarious and there is such meanness and cruelty.

When I feel most challenged by all of this, I remember Mohandas Gandhi, who said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it – always.” When I despair, I remember that love – unconditional love, forgiveness, and a kind heart – are the most essential of all virtues.

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